Today is the traditional day for the Horn Dance in Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire. The dating is linked to the old custom, now mostly defunct, of celebrating Wakes Week at various times over the summer in different villages in England, especially in the North. Various calendar customs, such as Rushbearing, and Well Dressing are associated with the Wakes. The word “wakes” may derive from the custom of beginning the festival with a vigil on the night before – i.e. staying “awake” for the night. I’m skeptical about this. Traditional practice was to have an evensong church service on the Saturday at sundown, followed by a full-blown church celebration on Sunday with mass. Then Monday was devoted to secular games and sports. The Wakes in Abbots Bromley begin on the Sunday following 4th September, and the Horn Dance is performed on the Monday.
There is no question that the Horn Dance is weird and unique among calendar customs in England. Cecil Sharp, noted collector of traditional dance and music in England in the early 20th century, recorded the dance and published notation for it in the first part of The Sword Dances of Northern England (1912). Sharp apparently learned about the dance from Charlotte Burne’s article in Folk-lore (7/4 December 1896):
Again, we may trace the forest influence on annual sports and festivals in the Horn-dance at Abbot’s Bromley. At the parish wake every year, on the Monday after the 4th of September, six men carrying stags’ horns on their shoulders perform a country dance. Another dancer, the Hobby Horse, wears a wooden horse’s head and caparison, a boy carries a crossbow and arrow with which he makes a snapping noise in time to the music. A woman carrying a curious old wooden ladle for money and a clown make up the party. The articles used in the dance are kept in the church-tower in the custody of the vicar of the parish. Dr. Plot, in 1686, mentions this custom, which seems then to have been in temporary abeyance, doubtless owing to the Civil Wars. The dance, according to his account, took place in the Christmas holidays, and the stags’ horns were painted with the arms of the landowners. Some traces of the paint still remain. “To the Hobby Horse Dance,” he says, “there also belonged a pot, which was kept by Turnes, by 4 or 5 of the chief of the Town, whom they call’d Reeves, who provided cakes and ale to put in this pot,” after the manner apparently of “sops in wine.” It was then, I suppose, shared as a “loving-cup” among the spectators. Every well-disposed householder contributed “pence apiece” for himself and his family; and with the levy thus made, together with the contributions of “forraigners that come to see it,” was defrayed, first, the cost of the cakes and ale, then the expense of the repairs of the church and the support of the poor. Tradition says that when the money collected was used for these public purposes, the dance was performed in the churchyard on Sunday after service. Now, of course, the dancers have the proceeds for themselves.
Dr. Plot distinctly says that the horns are “Raindeer” horns; and recent visitors have corroborated this. If this be really the case, there seem no limits to our conjectures upon the age and origin of the custom; and at any rate Abbot’s Bromley is as likely a place as any in the county to preserve traditions of immemorial antiquity. It is situated not in, but on the borders of, Needwood Forest, and is one of the estates with which Wulfric Spot, Ealdorman of Mercia, endowed his foundation of Burton Abbey in 1002. Before that date it must have formed part of the possessions of the Ealdormanship, as its neighbour, King’s Bromley, continued to do down to the time of Edward the Confessor, after which it passed to the Crown. The place has thus had a continuous existence, with singularly few vicissitudes, of some nine centuries at least. A good deal has already been said here about this dance, I believe; but what I want to suggest to you to-day is that it is a dramatic form of the morris-dance, performed in the woodland characters of stags and huntsmen. Observe that the deer are evidently the deer of the lords of the manor, marked with their coats of arms, while the dance is the common act of the villagers as a body. The care of the property of the dance was entrusted to their official representatives, ecclesiastical and civil; the expense of the common cup was defrayed by common contributions at a fixed and equal rate; the money realised was devoted to a common public object. I believe the primary intention of the dance to have been the assertion of some ancient common right or privilege of the village in regard to the chase. Written records might be lost or destroyed: such an “object lesson” as this was a constant proclamation of their ancient rights to the whole village and to the “forraigners” who came to see it.
There are quite a few errors here, beginning with the apostrophe in the village’s name. Most importantly, late 19th century antiquarians and folklorists had this false notion of folk memory and folk “survivals.” In their minds, calendar customs were unthinking memories in peasant culture of times past. They did these dances out of a sense of duty to tradition but had no active memory of where they came from or what they represented. Folklorists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries “knew” they were descendants of pagan rituals. This completely unsupported speculation, which modern scholars (including myself) have debunked, just won’t die, especially because it fits the agenda of neo-pagans. So, you’ll often hear that the Horn Dance has roots stretching back into Medieval times and beyond. In fact, the first recorded evidence of the dance is the Robert Plot reference cited by Burne, which is 1686. Not exactly pagan times. There are ZERO earlier references — NONE.
Here’s a video of the dance as it is now performed, and pretty much how it has been done for 100 years. Ignore the hopelessly ill-informed commentary, but note the dance. It’s quite jolly and festive.
Compare this with the eerily surreal “re-created” performance by Thaxted Morris Men which they do annually.
Now it’s night time, the dance is slow and the music haunting (using a tune that is never used in Abbots Bromley), the costumes do not resemble the traditional ones (which were originally designed by the vicar’s wife and made from old curtains), and the dancers walk solemnly with ‘ritual’ gestures. All fake; all made up to conform with false theories about the origin of the dance. OK. If you want to believe stupid theories go ahead. If you want to “re-create” ridiculous “originals,” no one can stop you. But do me a favor. Don’t go to Abbots Bromley after you’ve seen a stupid, made up performance and tell them that they are doing it wrong. There’s too much of that going around. Stop it!!!
Staffordshire oatcakes are perfect for today’s recipe. Not only are they a regional specialty, good for holiday fare, they also fit the description of having “cakes and ale” as a treat. “Cakes and ale” is a well known part of a quote from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that has drifted into popular consciousness as an example of what Elizabethans did for fun. I suspect that the “cakes” in question are, in fact, something along the lines of oatcakes, although traditional fruit cakes would work too. Oatcakes are savory and are usually served as part of a meal. They go well with breakfast eggs and bacon, served with butter or melted cheese on top.
225g/8oz fine oatmeal
100g/3½oz wholemeal flour
100g/3½oz plain flour
1 tsp quick-action yeast
825ml/3½ cups water (approx.)
1 tbsp baking powder
Mix together the oatmeal, wholemeal flour, plain flour, yeast and salt in a bowl until well combined.
Make a well in the center of the mixture, then gradually add the water in a thin stream, stirring well with a wooden spoon, until the batter is well combined and the consistency of thick double cream. Use just enough water to make the batter. Do not make it too thin.
Cover the batter with a damp, clean tea towel and set aside for 3-4 hours (or up to 8 hours), to allow the gluten in the batter to develop.
When ready to cook the batter, whisk in the baking powder until well combined.
Heat one teaspoon of vegetable oil in a frying pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add a ladleful of the batter mixture and swirl the pan to coat the bottom of it in a thin layer.
Fry the oatcake for 1-2 minutes without touching it. The top will start to dry and bubble. When the bottom is firm peek under, using a spatula to lift an edge, to make sure the bottom is mottled golden-brown.
Flip the oatcake and fry for a further minute or two, until the underside is golden-brown also.
Place on a serving platter and keep warm whilst repeating the process with the remaining batter.